6 Myths about Art Most People Share


Art tends to be surrounded by awe and respect. Museums resemble cathedrals in the way people move around the halls speaking in hushed tones and looking humbly at the works on display. Art or Hight Art – as it’s sometimes called – should be regarded in a more natural and intimate way by the viewers. The lack of great museums in the region makes the contact with art a particularly formal  experience for us Latin Americans. But things are changing as more and more people go abroad, frequent museums, and substitute pleasure and fun for the old sense of respect infused in them when they stood in front of a famous painting or sculpture not many years ago. The myths we are outlining below concern more that kind of art you find in museums and galleries: the visual art produced by the great masters.

1. Art is usually spontaneous and organic. The legend says the talent lies dormant in the artist until it’s suddenly awaken by the muses. In fact, the development of artistic skills is a long and hard path, involving a lot of academic learning, Of course, there are more or less intuitive artists, and mentors may sometimes replace art schools. Formal learning, however, is integral to the process and only practice makes perfect.

2. The best art has idealized versions of  mythology, history or biblical themes as its subject matter. This tradition started being disputed around the time the pre-Impressionists, such as Manet with his mundane and realistic nudes, and the social art of Courbet. Their fight against tradition and academicism was taken to a whole new level by the Impressionists, especially by Monet, who understood art as the apprehension of fleeting moments in time such as the effects of light bouncing off trees, water and plain people in everyday situations. That was what mattered and deserved registering.Colors became bright and more vibrant.

Argenteuil, c. 1872-1875, by Monet.

Argenteuil, c. 1872-1875, by Monet.

3.  The best art is realistic. Fauvism, Cubism and Modern Art in general showed that there was not much point in replicating what film and photography had  started doing so well as of the XIX century. Art couldn’t and shouldn’t compete with them. So art needed to change. It should remain an expression of what is human, including reality, but as seen through the eyes, emotions, neuroses, and obsessions of the artistic self. Art was a personal way to express the artist’s inner world. Unlike previous painters,  the sense of perspective developed since the Renaissance and the concepts of beauty and balance taken as tenets by the artistic community underwent an earthquake which  shattered those ideals to pieces. This is still going on.

Young Girl Reading a Book on the Beach, by Picasso.

Young Girl Reading a Book on the Beach, by Picasso.

4. Art dealers and critics are the experts and they know it all about good and bad taste. We all know how the Impressionist group struggled to have their works exhibited in the tradition-dominated Salón in XIX century Paris. There are no absolutes in art and if you read Tom Wolf’s iconoclastic The Painted Word – which I strongly recommend – you will laugh widely and be infused by  a sense of liberation as he dissects and analyses ironically the American art of the XX century. There is also a hilarious chapter in  his latest book, Back to Blood,   which mocks merciless the Modern Art World of contemporary Miami, with its dealers, experts, artists and stupid billionaire clients. A must-read.

The Connoisseur: Rockwell's sarcastic take on Modern Art used as the cover for Tom Wolfe's THE PAINTED WORD.

The Connoisseur: Rockwell’s sarcastic take on Modern Art used as the cover for Tom Wolfe’s THE PAINTED WORD.

5. You have an innate predisposition to love, hate or be totally indifferent to art. Not so simple. Just like marmite – for those who have had a chance, like me, to live in he UK for a while and see this initially disgusting jam-like spread sitting on the breakfast table every morning,  or even Japanese food,  whose ever-present ripe odor coming out of restaurants may put you off getting in at first – art is an acquired taste. You don’t have to like it right away, but you may grow to love it by exposure. There is no need to enjoy every famous artist either.  Be selective. Art grows in people. And I strongly defend that by offering  history of art as a subject in the secondary and high school – not very common in most schools in South America –  or by parents exposing their kids to art books at home or visiting museums, young people’s taste will get more refined and we will see a growth in art appreciation over time.

6. Art is for older people. The younger you are the more appealing iconoclastic  and unconventional art will look to you, especially if you have a rebel streak (who doesn’t?) in you. Therefore your initial interest for the drama and violence in Caravaggio,  as you grow more mature,  may be replaced by calmer Monets or a more contained Velàzquez later on in life.  Their beauty and absence of direct conflict can be refreshing as you grow more mature. I still love Janis Joplin, The Stones, Jim Morrison and Sid Vicious. Sometimes it was not even the quality of their music but their life style, perfomances and stage persona – some of them very short-lived, by the way – which captivated me. However,  as I grew more mature,  classical music started to show its charms and take over my musical taste.

We will be talking more about art in the next post. Watch this space.

If you are a language teacher and interested in art you may want to check out our new series of ebooks TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART, available for download from the Kindle Store. We focus on vocabulary learning, speaking and writing skills in the series. Check it out by clicking here: : http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS

Teaching English with Art, the series.

Teaching English with Art, the series.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

“You’re so vain” (Books I think are about me)


I got a funny reaction to my blog post on Wuthering Heights (http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-j0) from an anonymous reader. He or she wrote to me saying: “You are so vain, you probably think Wuthering Heights is about you”. I suspect this is an adaptation of a line of an old Carly Simon song, who allegedly was referring to Mick Jagger. In a way, I found the comment rather amusing, and, to be quite honest, remarkably true. Even more worrying: I tend to think that every single book I love is about me! As a matter of fact, it only interests me if I can somehow relate to it. And I guess this is what happens to every reader, at least the more romantic ones, like me. So, yes, you got it right, dear anonymous e-mail writer.

Take for example some of the best books I have read (and often reread) : Dom Casmurro (by Machado de Assis), Nemesis (by Philip Roth) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (by Tom Wolfe). They are really all about me.

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Dom Casmurro, by Machado de Assis.

The first time I read Dom Casmurro I was still in high school, and totally fell in love with Capitu. The kiss she and Bentinho exchange while he is combing her hair and she drops her head back, making their faces align in opposite directions, is  one of the most romantic scenes I remember as a teenager. Imagine my surprise when I saw a repeat of that scene decades later in the movie SPIDER MAN! This time he was hanging upside down from a wire fence while Mary Jane was looking up.  The same kind of kiss. Also, like Bentinho, the main character in Dom Casmurro, I can be quite jealous in a relationship and totally understand how paranoid it must feel to have your kid grow up to look like your best male friend. And the best thing is, every time I read the book again, I find new clues that indicate that Capitu must have been unfaithful, although we can never be one hundred per cent sure, as the story is very cleverly told from the point of view of the narrator only, who happens to be Bentinho, the husband.

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Nemesis, by Philip Roth

Nemesis by Philip Roth is a very universal story, and if you can’t identify with it, I’m afraid you have a problem. Although I’m not Jewish and am fortunate enough not to be physically disabled (the story is about the terrible consequences of the outbreak of a polio epidemic in the mid-1940s New Jersey), I fully identify with the book’s themes. The main message, as I see it, is, if you are struck by tragedy, if you have a disability of any kind, or anything else people may look down upon or reject you for (and that probably applies to all of us), there is no point in blaming God or the Universe for it. Get on with your life, it’s your responsibility to make the most of it and restore or construe your own meaning for happiness. Or fight back. This is something everyone needs to hear: take full ownership of your failures and problems, and deal with them. No one else will care as much. Tough, but real.

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The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe

The Bonfire of the Vanities: the main character finds himself in a kafkaesque situation: he gets lost in a dangerous part of  the city while driving back from the airport with his mistress, and accidently seems to strike a young black man he was sure was trying to mug them.  What a nightmare!  Was it a hit-and-run accident? Should they tell the police straightaway? But the wife will find out about the mistress then. Was the kid really hit, all they heard was a little noise (“thok”) after all. Surely the boy was OK. What decisions do they need to make? Mistakes are inevitably made along the way and there are terrible consequences. Moreover, there are many third parties (journalists, community leaders, attorneys, politicians, etc) trying to profit politically from the situation. Nothing is as morally simple as it first looks. Interesting questions. The reader gets deeply involved in the plot and its turns. “Unputdownable”. Besides, it’s very tempting to picture myself living the good life of a succesful Wall Street yuppie in a huge two-story apartment off Park Avenue in Manhattan…without the tragedy! Another book that COULD be about me.

So I’m really sorry if the anonymous e-mail writer intended to hurt my feelings accusing me of believing that Wuthering Heights is about me. Catherine, one of the book’s main characters, says at one of the most important plot points in the story: “I am Heathcliff!”  Well, so am I!

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.